CITY TIMES Cover Story : The Comeback Corridor : Once-Thriving Vermont Avenue Is on the Rebound as $60 Million Has Been Earmarked for Construction and Rehabilitation Projects.

Special to the Times

Vermont Avenue emerged from the 1992 riots a broken and dispirited street, a wasteland of gutted shops and shattered dreams.

Many of the roughly 600 properties gutted or damaged during the riots were located along the artery, and among the hardest-hit pockets was a five-mile stretch in south Los Angeles between the Santa Monica (10) Freeway and Manchester Avenue. About 50 structures were torched there, and property losses topped $40 million. On some blocks, the voracious flames left only charred storefronts opening onto debris and sky.

"It looked like something out of a World War II movie," said Rodney Shepard, a developer based in South-Central Los Angeles. "It looked like it had been bombed."

Now, almost three years later, more than $60 million--nearly $50 million of which is private investment--has been earmarked for construction and rehabilitation projects on and around Vermont in hopes of jump-starting full economic recovery along the once-thriving retail strip.

New supermarkets, retail stores, library services and a performing arts center are in the works. The most high-profile plans call for a face lift along Vermont between Vernon and Slauson avenues and conversion of former Pepperdine University property into a 75,000-square-foot retail and residential complex. Work is already under way on several of these projects--indeed, some are already nearing completion. (See graphic, Page 14)

Nearly $30 million in projects have been slated near Vermont and Manchester avenues alone, signifying one of the largest concentrations of proposed development in South-Central Los Angeles. The projects are expected to generate hundreds of new jobs.

"I'm excited to get back into business and make some money," said Terry Steele, who lost his Vermont Avenue furniture store in the riots. His business is set to reopen in one of 14 developments scheduled for completion along the thoroughfare in the next 21 months.

Much of the interest in the corridor has come from a November, 1992, Urban Land Institute report examining the need for revitalizing Vermont Avenue south of the freeway, said Eugene Grigsby, a UCLA professor who has been studying development-related issues in South-Central for 25 years. The report concluded that there are "thousands of acres" of vacant or underused commercial property that could be developed to produce "needed jobs, housing opportunities and services to the community."

But while the report identifies untapped potential for commercial development along Vermont, Grigsby remains doubtful of the area's success.

Continued competition from malls and large, one-stop shopping outlets, he said, will make it difficult to bring about full economic recovery for a strip of mostly small mom-and-pop stores.

"I don't think I'll be around to see a revitalized Vermont corridor," the 50-year-old said.

Yet proponents insist projects that combine commercial and residential uses, like the one slated at the former Pepperdine site, will provide a near-guaranteed customer base for new businesses.

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Such is the medicine for a street that 40 years ago didn't even have a sniffle.

"It used to be you could walk and shop and get anything you wanted on Vermont," said longtime resident Helen Johnson, 64. "It was really nice."

From the 1920s through 1950s, commercial activity along Vermont was in top gear. All week, eager shoppers would throng the avenue's shops and department stores. Business was so brisk in the clothing stores and jewelry marts around Vermont and Manchester that the area rivaled Downtown as a shopping destination.

"It was crowded, always crowded," recalled Frank Morris, who moved into the middle-class Vermont Knolls neighborhood just northwest of Vermont and Manchester in 1957.

By that time, the area's mostly white residents had already started leaving for newer, more exclusive suburbs. Still, most businesses remained white-owned even as more and more African Americans migrating from the South moved in.

Economic prosperity began tapering off in the 1960s, when nearby factories and other high-employment enterprises began closing and joblessness soared. At the same time, retail shops started leaving Vermont in search of more moneyed clientele.

Racial distrust also played a role--the 1965 riots in nearby Watts accelerated the flight of white residents and merchants even though the Vermont area was untouched.

"The Watts rebellion killed it flat," Morris said of Vermont's economic life.

The area also suffered major blows in the 1970s when high-profile establishments such as Pepperdine University and a decades-old Sears department store moved off the avenue. The Malibu-bound university took with it a major customer base for local merchants, and the loss of Sears deprived the area of one of its chief shopping magnets.

The most recent malady, the 1992 riots, left Vermont a collection of weed-covered lots and shuttered stores interspersed among small, family-owned businesses.

For many residents, these surviving businesses, often in aged and crumbling buildings, are either too shabby or fail to provide goods and services they want, prompting many to drive to other neighborhoods to shop.

"It's gone past the point of inconvenient; you just know (shopping elsewhere) is what you have to do," said William Collins, who leaves his neighborhood one block west of Vermont at least once a week to shop in Culver City. "It's been going on for so long, it's almost the norm."

Collins is a member of the nonprofit community group Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives, which in surveys found that 70% of south Los Angeles residents traveled out of their community to shop. The surveys, conducted randomly with 748 people over the past few months, also showed that 84% of respondents rated goods and services in their neighborhoods average to very poor.

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Residents would also like to curb the expansion of two of the avenue's most common enterprises: auto shops and beauty parlors. In a comprehensive listing of businesses on Vermont south of the freeway, RLA, the high-profile agency created after the 1992 riots to promote development in damaged areas, found that 20% of businesses between Manchester and the Santa Monica Freeway were devoted to automotive and beauty-related endeavors.

"We don't need any more nail and wig shops," said Jesstine Washington, a Vermont-area resident for 25 years.

The survey also bore out oft-heard gripes among residents that the strip lacks sufficient table-service or family restaurants. Of more than 370 business and residential locations identified in the survey, only 22 were restaurants and nearly all of those were fast food.

Yet, despite the dearth of services, studies indicate that area residents--now a near-even mix of Latinos and African Americans--have a combined annual purchasing power of $1 billion.

"The income is here ," said Marva Smith Battle-Bey, executive director of the nonprofit Vermont-Slauson Economic Development Corp. "There is tremendous potential for commercial businesses in the community."

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Some developers appear poised to cash in.

Money has begun pouring into the area for new projects such as retail stores, townhouses and modern municipal offices. Although at least one of the projects--the proposed development at the former Pepperdine site--has caused some controversy, nearly all community members agree on the need for other projects, such as new supermarkets.

In response to the scarcity of supermarkets in south Los Angeles, Alpha Beta plans to build a supermarket at Adams and Vermont, and Vons is building one farther down the avenue at Slauson.

The Vons development is part of the company's $100-million effort to expand into traditionally underserved areas. Already, two Vons markets have been erected under the program in Compton and Inglewood.

The Vons will join a growing number of businesses at the intersection that have opened, and in some cases reopened, since the riots, including Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises and a branch of Home Savings of America.

The Vons project serves as the southern anchor of a roughly $18-million effort to revitalize the cultural and economic life of a 16-block area of Vermont to the north of Slauson. Among the projects are the combined $7.9-million renovations of the city's oldest library, built in 1913, and conversion of a 99-year-old church into a performing arts center.

The most high-profile endeavor, however, is a $250,000 project to wipe away the concrete harshness and decrepitude of Vermont between Vernon and Slauson with freshly painted facades, flowering trees and colorful banners and awnings. The Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative hopes to transform the commercial thoroughfare into a promenade, luring more customers and new shops to the area.

The two-year face lift, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is expected to leave in its wake repaired sidewalks and curbs, Arabian-blue light posts, sidewalk planters and bus shelters decorated with community art.

"I think it's good," said Wade Fears, owner of All-Star Fish Market at 4818 Vermont. "I like going to a place that's nice, so I suspect other people do too."

Yet while merchants and residents agree on the benefits of the Vermont Avenue face lift, the same cannot be said of plans to put a commercial and residential complex at the site of the former Pepperdine University administration building at 81st Street.

A vocal group of homeowners vehemently oppose the proposal, claiming the planned construction of 35 townhouses will drive down property values and increase density in an area with few services.

The Vermont Knolls-Vermont Manchester Vicinity Assn. also asserts that the 75,000-square-foot parcel would be better devoted to a pedestrian shopping district akin to Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade or Pasadena's Old Town.

"They're forcing residential where residential isn't wanted," said Margaret Griffie, who has lived in the area for 24 years.

Proponents counter that the project will not affect property values because the townhouses will be sold at prices comparable to those in the neighborhood. Last year, most of the homes in the neighborhood were reportedly sold at between $100,000 and $150,000.

Naomi Nightingale, who lives a block from the site, was part of a selection committee that chose the mixed-use plan for the site. The panel was convened by project sponsor First Interstate Bank.

"I basically don't agree with my neighbors because I don't see this being a threat," she said.

Exclusive commercial development along Vermont, Nightingale contends, would have a difficult time attracting businesses without the built-in customer base provided by a mixed residential and retail project.

Other plans for the site include renovating the 64-year-old Art Deco administration building and turning it over to the USC Business Expansion Network, which will help foster fledgling businesses by offering them office space with reduced overhead costs.

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On the north side of the building, 14,000 square feet of vacant land will be converted into 10 to 15 retail outlets that developers hope to fill with high-traffic outlets such as a video store or bakery.

Despite the wrangling over commercial-versus-residential uses at the Pepperdine site, all other developments in the area are geared toward nonprofit community services such as a senior citizens home, an office building for city departments, an alternative high school and a home buyers resource center.

New development along Vermont may also get a shot in the arm if the City Council gives the Community Redevelopment Agency the go-ahead to draft proposals for special redevelopment zones in and around the Vermont area. Such zones would feature low-interest construction loans and a streamlined city permit process.

But regardless of the outcome of the CRA proposals, the rebirth of Vermont has already begun.

While some, like Grigsby of UCLA's Urban and Planning Department, remain skeptical of the development plans, the optimism of residents such as Helen Johnson is unshakable.

A grandmother of three who serves on the community oversight committee for the Neighborhood Initiative project, Johnson looks forward to the day she can walk to Vermont to shop instead of driving to the Crenshaw District.

"I want to spend my money in my community, but I need a safe place to do this," she said.

"We're working like hell to make it like it used to be."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Shot in the Arm

Nearly three years after being devastated by the Los Angeles riots, a five-mile stretch of Vermont Avenue is undergoing construction and rehabilitation that residents and officials hope will lead to a renaissance. More than $60 million--nearly $50 million of it from private investment--is being poured into the area for improvements such as supermarkets, retail stores, nonprofit services, homes and a performing arts center.

DEVELOPMENTS

1) Alpha Beta Supermarket

Location: southeast corner of Vermont and Adams

Size: 53,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $10 million

Financing: Community Redevelopment Authority, Food 4 Less, Bakewell Development, Inc.

Projected completion: end of 1995

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2) Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Stake Center

Location: northwest corner of Vermont and Jefferson

Size: 27,000 sq. ft., church; 80,000 sq. ft., parking structure

Cost: $10 million

Financing: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Projected completion: mid-April

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3) Patron Auto Service Center

Location: southeast corner of ML King and Vermont

Size: 6,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $450,000

Financing: Lo-Temp Refrigeration Co.

Projected completion: mid-April

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4) Vermont Square Library renovation

Location: 1201 W. 48th St. (2 blocks west of Vermont)

Size: 8,700 sq. ft.

Cost: $2.9 million

Financing: city's Capital Improvement Program and the Library Facilities Bond Issue of 1989

Projected completion: October

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5) Street-scape (facade improvement, new lighting, benches, etc.)

Location: Vermont between Vernon and Slauson

Cost: $250,000

Financing: U.S. Department of Transportation

Projected completion: end of 1995

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6) Barry Gordy Center for the Performing Arts (to be housed in rehabilitated Presbyterian Church, damaged by the earthquake)

Location: southeast corner of 53rd and Vermont

Size: 60,000 sq. ft.

Cost: between $5 million and $6 million

Financing: FEMA and a mix of public and private sources

Projected completion: Spring 1996

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7) Terry's Interiors furniture store and strip mall

Location: northeast corner of 54th and Vermont

Size: 9,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $315,000

Financing: Small Business Administration

Projected completion: Summer

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8) Vons Market

Location: southwest corner of Vermont and Slauson

Size: 55,000 sq. ft.

Cost: Vons would not say, citing competitive reasons

Financing: Vons Urban Development Program

Projected completion: Spring, 1996

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9) Mixed-use commercial and residential complex

Location: northwest corner of 81st Street and Vermont

Size: 75,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $11 million

Financing: First Interstate Bank

Projected completion: end of 1996

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10) Rehabilitation of the former Esquire Boys and Girls Club

(targeted for use by a local community-based social service agency)

Location: southwest corner of 81st St. and Vermont

Size: 8,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $600,000

Financing: City of Los Angeles

Projected completion: Summer

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11) Home buyers resource center (located in a demonstration model for a new type of low-cost housing targeted for vacant lots in Los Angeles)

Location: southeast corner of 81st St. and Vermont

Size: 14,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $95,000

Financing: Housing Alternatives Inc.

Projected completion: late May

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12) P&P; Home for the Elderly

Location: 1030-1050 W. 85th St.

Size: 107 units

Cost: $8.6 million

Financing: CRA, the Progressive Baptist Church and the Philippian Baptist Church

Projected completion: early 1996

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13) Constituent Services Center (municipal building with offices for 15 city departments)

Location: northwest corner of 85th Street and Vermont

Size: 17,000 sq. ft.

Cost: $6 million

Financing: 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, Inc.

Projected completion: late April

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14) Youth Opportunities Unlimited Alternative High School (LAUSD run)

Location: northeast corner of Vermont and Manchester

Size: 33,000 sq. ft.

Cost: between $2 and 3 million

Financing: City of Los Angeles Community Development Department

Projected completion: Fall 1996

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